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The Indians enter the 2017 season as arguably the most hyped Cleveland baseball team since the 90’s. So to get us ready for another year Indians fever, I’ve come up with six questions for the upcoming season in honor of the Indians having reached their sixth World Series last season. Without any further ado, let’s get into the questions.
1. Who’s in the way of another World Series run?
I’ll save looking at the NL contenders for the next question, and save the AL Central for question #3. What teams have the best chance of knocking the Indians off of their defending AL championship pedestal? The Red Sox seem to be the first team that comes to mind when thinking of current AL powers. Statistically speaking they were the best team in the AL last season and had the best offense in the AL by a mile. There were some pretty big changes that occurred in Fenway though. Longtime lineup staple, and arguably the greatest DH of all-time, David Ortiz called it quits are his historic final season. His presence will be sorely missed in the middle of the lineup and Mookie Betts will be called upon to become the leader of the team. With Ortiz gone, Hanely Ramirez and his lead glove will move into the DH position, with newly signed Mitch Moreland, and his gold glove, at first.
The Red Sox outfield trio of top prospect Andrew Benintendi and All-Stars Jackie Bradley Jr. and Mookie Betts will give the Red Sox the best all-around outfield in the league. However, any loss that David Ortiz’s retirement brought to the lineup will likely be balanced out by the acquisition of all-world pitcher Chris Sale. With Sale, David Price and Rich Porcello, the Red Sox’s top of the rotation can match up with any team. Add to that a shored up bullpen and you can see why a lot of people have the Red Sox as the best team in the AL heading into 2017.
The AL West houses the two other teams that can give the Indians a scare and both of them call Texas home. Let’s start with the Houston Astros, who upgraded every weak spot in their lineup with the acquisitions of Carlos Beltran, Josh Reddick and Brian McCann. You won’t find a more balanced lineup in all of baseball. Throw in the likes of Alex Bergman, George Springer, Carlos Correa and Jose Atluve and you might find the team with the highest upside of any.
Their rotation could be their downfall, though, as they’re looking for bounce back years and a run of good health from Dallas Keuchel, Lance McCuller Jr. and Collin McHugh. Out of all of the contenders, their pitching is the most iffy. The team from Texas, the Rangers, who finished 2016 as the top AL team, played more like a team with a .500 record thanks to the greatest record in one-run games in MLB history. Normally teams that experience those type of seasons see a dramatic fall off the next season. But the Rangers are in perfect position to buck that trend. Odds are they will be a better overall team in 2017, but they might see their record decline. That being said, this is still a team that can slug you to death. If they get any improvement from youngsters such as Rougned Odor, Joey Gallo and Nomar Mazara, they will be a tough out. They’ll get full seasons from Jonathon Lucroy (only 47 games in a Ranger uniform last season) and Yu Darvish (100.1 innings pitched).
2. Will we have a Cubs-Indians Part II?
It’s still the usual suspects as last year in the NL. The Cubs will be heavy favorites to repeat, not only as NL champs, but as World Series champs. But there are still plenty of teams vying to unseat them. The Nationals might have the best chance. The trade that brought Adam Eaton to the Nationals allowed them to move Trea Turner (their best position player not named Bryce Harper) back to his natural position of shortstop. With Eaton and Turner at the top of the order, there will be plenty of RBI opportunities for Bryce Harper. Harper saw his OPS drop nearly 300 points, but still produced a 20-20 season and walked over 100 times. Harper also saw his value drop by eight wins. If Harper doesn’t have the best case for a bounce back, then please tell me who does.
I almost forgot the mention Daniel Murphy. You know, the guy who finished second in the MVP voting? The rest of the lineup is pretty good, too. Anthony Rendon and Jayson Werth are pretty good players and they’ll see a lot of time in the bottom half of this batting order. The rotation for Nationals is led by the best pitcher not named Kershaw in Max Scherzer, who has four straight seasons finishing in the top-5 of Cy Young voting. Ho-hum starters like Stephen Strasburg, Tanner Roark and Gio Gonzalez will fill out the rotation. One problem of concern could be the bullpen, though.
The Cubs will also have to compete with the two giants (no pun intended) in the West. The Dodgers continue to run out the deepest rotation in all of baseball. Anchored by Clayton Kershaw, they have the ability to go eight deep. Corey Seager and Logan Forsythe will form one of the most valuable middle infields and a return season from Yasiel Puig might be inevitable at this point. As for the Giants, the even-year magic might have been broken last season, but this is still a veteran team that knows how to win. Madison Bumgarner, Johnny Cueto, Matt Moore and Jeff Samardzjia are a strong rotation, no matter who ends up winning that fifth spot. With guys like Buster Posey, Brandon Crawford, Brandon Belt and Hunter Pence in the lineup, they might not out-hit you every game, but they’ll give you outstanding defense. Throw in an elite closer in Mark Melancon and the Giants could easily make it four World Series title in eight years.
Let’s be clear though, this isn’t the NBA where the Cavs-Warriors match-up is all but set in stone. No one expected the Indians to even beat the Red Sox in the ALDS, let alone make it to Game 7 of the World Series. Baseball is the sport with the most variation. It’s entirely possible that neither the Indians or the Cubs make it back to the World Series, but we’re all rooting for it.
3. Will the Indians have any competition in the AL Central?
Quick answer? No. But that’s not why you clicked on this article. Let’s get two teams out of the way quickly. The Twins are coming off a season that saw them lose 103 games. Unless they complete the biggest turnaround in MLB history they pose no threat. The White Sox are in full rebuild mode, having already sold off Chris Sale and Adam Eaton. Expect more veterans like Todd Frazier, Jose Quintana, David Robertson, Jose Abreu and Melky Cabrera to be involved in trade rumors from now until the deadline.
Now we move on to the teams that at least have some hope of contending with the Indians. The Royals just two years ago won the World Series, but things came crashing down last season (which was expected after losing Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist). This could very well be the last chance the Royals have at contending, as most of their core that won two straight AL Pennants will be free agents after this season. With the Royals budget, it’s hard to see them bringing back all of Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer or Mike Moustakas. A lot has to go right for the Royals to be in position to overtake the Indians and they no longer have the dominate bullpen to fall back on, as Wade Davis is in Chicago and Greg Holland is in Colorado. This is still a team that relies on contact hitting and defense, but don’t hold the same advantage in those categories they did a few years ago.
The Tigers are a different story. On there best day, they can hang with any team, but they have a lot of questions. Justin Verlander and Michael Fulmer are a heck of a top of the rotation tandem, but even then Verlander will be 34 with a ton of innings on him and Fulmer has only 159 innings to his name. After those two, the rotation is pretty shaky. Jordan Zimmermann struggled badly in his first season with the Tigers and any contribution you get out of Anibal Sanchez will be considered a positive. Meanwhile, Matt Boyd and Daniel Norris have yet to prove they can be successful major league starters, but the potential is certainly there. As for the offense, the Tigers can rake with the best of them. Miguel Cabrera is still one of the best hitters in the game, sandwich Victor Martinez and J.D. Martinez next to him and that’s a scary middle of the order. A bounce back year from Justin Upton would go a long way in helping the Tigers. However, let’s say the Tigers get off to a slow start, we could see them start shifting to full rebuild mode. Same goes for the Royals.
4. What will be better: the offense, the rotation, or the bullpen?
The Indians offense surprisingly finished second in the AL in runs scored last, albeit a distance second (101 runs behind the Red Sox). Gone are Rajai Davis and Mike Napoli, and in to replace those guys are Michael Brantley and Edwin Encarnacion. Looking at a stat called runs created, Napoli and Davis combined to create 146 runs for the Indians in 2016. Edwin Encarnacion created 113 runs last season. As for Brantley, I took his 2013 number, which was 75, adding those two together, you get 188 runs. That difference of 42 runs is equal to about four wins. So just accounting for adding Encarnacion and an average Brantley season, the wins can expect about four more wins.
But this lineup is more than just Brantley and Encarnacion, as we saw last year when Brantley played in just 11 games. Carlos Santana hit 34 home runs in 2016 and will spend the majority of his time in the lead off spot. Jason Kipnis likely won’t match his home run total of last season, but he is still a jack-of-all-trades type player. Francisco Lindor is a superstar in the making (if he isn’t one already) and is one of the best players in the game. Jose Ramirez is likely to see some decline in his numbers, but he’s still just 24 years old and has plenty of room for growth. In the outfield, Lonnie Chisenhall and Brandon Guyer will form one of the best platoons in the game, while Tyler Naquin will probably see top prospect, Bradley Zimmer, push him for playing time later in the season. All in all, this is the deepest lineup the Indians have had in years.
The Indians have long been lauded for their rotation, but it might end up been the worst of the group now. That’s more on injury risk and potential depth problems, but when healthy this is still one of the best one-through-five rotations. Corey Kluber is the epitome of what an “ace” pitcher is and should be. Over the last three seasons, Kluber has averaged a 15-11 record with a 3.01 ERA, 224 innings, 247 strikeouts, 2.82 FIP, 142 ERA+ and a 6.0 WAR. The rest of the rotation does come with questions. Carlos Carrasco arguably has the highest potential of any Indians starter, but has yet to pitch more than 185 innings in his career. Last year his injuries were a bit fluky, but expecting him to remain healthy all season is questionable, especially considering he has experienced some minor elbow issues in spring. Danny Salazar has always wowed people with his stuff and through the midway point of last season, he was considered a Cy Young front-runner. Foreman issues derailed his season and limited him to just 137.1 innings. Trevor Bauer always seems to be the wild card, some days he baffles hitters with his never ending arsenal, other days he’s gone by the second inning. He’s an innings eater who can win you a lot of games or lose you a lot of games. At this point we know what Josh Tomlin is, pin-point control, walks no one and serves up a lot of gopher balls. But you can certainly get by if he’s your fifth starter. This all might seem like I sold the rotation a little short, but this is still a top five rotation in baseball.
Bullpens are always the most violate aspect of any team, but I think it’s safe to say the Indians will have one of the best bullpens in baseball in 2017. Just with Cody Allen and Andrew Miller alone, they would have one of the best bullpens. But throw in guys like Bryan Shaw, Boone Logan, Dan Otero and Zach McAllister, and the Indians basically have from the sixth inning on accounted for.
The rotation and bullpen should compliment each other perfectly this season. Let’s take a look at some of the players in the bullpen. Allen and Miller were literally unhittable all October, but it’s crazy to think they will have the same workload during the regular season. And Francona has plenty of options to go to to ease the load on those two guys. The Boone Logan signing was a move of pure genius as he gives the Indians a lefty specialist that allows the Tribe to deploy Miller however they feel fit. Dan Otero would be a great late inning guy for any other team, but for the Indians will likely be relegated to sixth inning duty. Any concerns about sub-par season should know that other than his 2015 season (-0.9 WAR), he’s averaged a 1.9 WAR in three out of the last four seasons. Bryan Shaw does bring some concern, especially given his workload over the last four seasons, but the Indians are deep enough in the pen, where he won’t need to be overworked this season.
So what do I think will be the best of the bunch? As good as the rotation has been over the past few season and as much potential the offense has (especially with Encarnacion and a healthy Brantley in the middle of the lineup), the bullpen has to be considered the Indians greatest strength. Did you watch the playoffs last season?
5. Bold Predictions
Francisco Lindor wins the MVP: My apologies to Mike Trout, but Lindor will take the mantle from him this season, after Lindor has his first 20-20 year, while also winning his second straight Gold Glove.
Carlos Carrasco has a better season than Corey Kluber: I’m not saying that Kluber has a bad season, I’m just saying that Carrasco could win the Cy Young this season.
Bradley Zimmer makes sizeable contribution this season: With a new swing in place this season, Zimmer will be called up in August and will eventually unseat Naquin as the starting centerfielder.
The Indians send six players to the All-Star game: Here’s the list: Lindor, Encarnacion, Kluber, Carrasco, Miller and Allen.
The Indians lead the AL in runs scored and ERA: See question #4 for greater detail.
Carlos Santana and Edwin Encarnacion both hit 40+ home runs: Santana hit 34 last season and Encarncaion hit 42, it’s doesn’t seem too far-fetched that this duo could both hit 40+.
6. Final Prediction
The Indians go wire-to-wire, as they never have any competition in the AL Central. They finish with 100 wins exactly (a record of 100-62), and claim the top AL playoff seed. They dispatch of the Rangers in the ALDS, survive a thrilling ALCS against the Red Sox, before they exact their revenge against the Cubs in the World Series, this time winning in seven games.
— Chris Sladoje (@The_Doje)
Images via ESPN, MLB.com